The virtual reality (VR) headsets on the market today provide fantastic visual and auditory immersion. That’s thanks to sophisticated head tracking, high-resolution displays, quality lenses, and stereo speakers. But there are very few VR devices that immerse our other senses, such as taste, smell, or touch. The most we get out of conventional VR controllers is haptic feedback in the form of vibration, which is technology that has existed for decades. Everyone who works with VR recognizes the need for better force feedback. To provide a very specific kind of feedback, a team of researchers created this robotic bracer that imparts 3D “force guidance” in VR.
Like the bracers worn as armor in the past, this device, called GuideBand, covers the user’s forearm. Using a series of motors, the device can tug on the user’s arm to make them feel like they are being guided in a specific direction. The idea is for that physical guidance to reflect what is happening in the virtual world that the user inhabits. It could, for instance, give the user’s arm a yank when a virtual character grabs their avatar. Or it can be more subtle and direct the user to objects that they’re supposed to pick up. It might even be provide feedback during virtual combat by imparting pressure on the user’s arm when they block a blow with a shield.
GuideBand prototype. (📷: Tsai et al.)
GuideBand straps to the user’s arm below their elbow and over their wrist. Two rings surround the arm and act as rails that the rest of the device rides on, so it can rotate to any angle around the arm. An arced rail spans the distance between the two rings and a winch slides along that. A cable connects the winch to a strap that wraps around the middle of the user’s forearm. A computer controls the device’s motors through an Arduino Mega development board. The GuideBand’s complex mechanics allow it to pull the user’s arm in any direction and the connected computer dictates the force vector. That vector corresponds to what the VR game or simulation requires.
At this time, GuideBand is only a prototype and it seems unlikely that it will ever make it to market. That’s because it is awfully complex, relatively expensive to build, and serves a very specific purpose. And, during testing, the researchers found that GuideBand was less useful than a more typical vibrotactile guidance device in some regards. Even so, it is interesting to see some unusual solutions to the problem of force feedback for virtual reality.